One of the hottest internet stories of the week sounds like a digital-age Mad Libs: fan fiction website AO3 was taken down by a group of hacktivists in a DDoS attack.
As they say, sometimes the truth is stranger than fan fiction.
AO3, which stands for Archive of Our Own, is a popular website that hosts fan fiction stories written and posted by users. The site crashed on July 10 due to a cyberattack and was down for just over a day.
AO3 fans were, to say the least, devastated.
“The Library of Alexandria is on fire”, a Twitter user writing above is an image of the error message from the AO3 site.
“It’s been 14 hours without ao3 I’m starting to lose taste in my right eye and sight in my left leg,” another user job.
“What if ao3 never came back. we have just seen the fall of society”, a user asked.
Luckily for its fans, the site returned to limited functionality on July 11, but AO3 warned on Twitter that users may still experience issues with the website.
AO3 fan Drake George tells TODAY.com the site’s value goes beyond entertainment, which is why the temporary crash – and the threat of losing the millions of stories archived on the site – has been such a blow.
“There are so many authentic and different experiences you get from reading fanfiction,” George says. “It’s a real melting pot of different perspectives and cultures.”
Here’s everything you need to know about the AO3 crash, fan fiction, and why the website matters to a community of readers and writers.
Why did the AO3 site crash?
According to George, this isn’t the first time the site has gone offline. AO3 has been temporarily unavailable before for site maintenance or due to broader issues affecting the rest of the web.
This time, however, AO3 would have been attacked.
The volunteer-run site fell victim to a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack this week, which causes websites to crash by overwhelming their servers with online traffic from a variety of sources.
“It looks like the Archive is undergoing a DDoS attack causing the servers to go down,” AO3 admins tweeted Tuesday in response to panicked fans. “Our volunteer system administrators are working on countermeasures. Please be patient with us, we will be back!”
The plot thickens from there.
In a July 10 Telegram message, a group called Anonymous Sudan claimed responsibility for the AO3 attack, citing anti-American and anti-LGBTQ sentiment.
The group also claimed a cyberattack against Microsoft that occurred in early June.
Cybersecurity firms have described the group as “politically motivated hacktivists” from Sudan. However, some scholars believe the group is affiliated with Russia.
AO3 admins responded to the group’s statement in a follow-up Tweeter July 10.
“We do not tolerate anti-Muslim sentiment in any way,” they wrote. “Furthermore, to reiterate: cybersecurity experts believe the group claiming responsibility is lying about its affiliation and the reasons for attacking the websites. View the group’s statements with skepticism.”
AO3 returned online on July 11, much to the relief of fans, although the site is still transaction with technical problems.
What is fanfiction?
Fan fiction – defined by Merriam-Webster as “stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans and often published on the Internet” – has been an extremely popular genre of online content since the early 2000s.
Sites like Wattpad, fanfiction.net, and AO3 have served as forums for millions of fans to chat and write about their favorite characters.
Often, fan fiction stories can seem peculiar compared to the plots of the original media.
Fan fiction stories abound about the idea that Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, who were mortal enemies in the “Harry Potter” series, were secretly in love.
Other types of fan fiction, categorized as “self-insertions”, imagine what would happen if the reader were part of the world of their favorite story.
Some stories center on real-life stars – which can also have real-life consequences. So many fans created content about “Larry,” the name of a fictional romantic relationship between One Direction band members Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles, that Tomlinson took notice.
Tomlinson said in a 2017 interview that fan fervor for a fictional relationship was creating distance between him and Styles.
“Larry” fanfiction became part of the story of “Euphoria” character Kat in the HBO show’s first season. In a meta-moment, Kat (Barbie Ferreira) fanfiction unfolds through animated renditions of Styles and Tomlinson.
Tomlinson later told the Guardian that the use of his likeness in the “Euphoria” scene had “pissed him off”.
You’ve probably read fanfiction yourself, even if you didn’t know it
A surprising number of popular novels and films began as fan fiction.
Author EL James’ bestselling novel “50 Shades of Grey” began as a “Twilight” fan fiction titled “Master of the Universe.” After removing all references to “Twilight” and its characters, James was able to officially publish the story as a novel, and the “50 Shades” book trilogy was later adapted into a film series.
“It was so high. I’ve been very lucky to pursue this high ever since,” she recently told TODAY.com in an interview about her new book, “The Missus.”
Similarly, the “After” movies were adapted from author Anna Todd’s book series of the same name, which began as fan fiction about the members of One Direction.
Some have argued, half-jokingly, that several classic works of literature should be considered fan fiction, given that they were based on pre-existing works and characters. For example, William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was based on the Norse legend of Amleth, and Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” could be considered fanfiction of the Bible itself.
Why fans love AO3
In the aftermath of the crash, Drake George posted a series of reaction videos on TikTok. George, 22, who uses the pronouns he/they, posts on his “father of fanfiction” TikTok account, which has more than 100,000 followers, his love for fandom.
“Somehow we will persevere despite the breakdown of AO3, my fellow fan fiction readers,” he said in a TikTok as Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” played dramatically in background. The video received over 500,000 views.
While those outside of the fandom community may never have heard of the site, AO3’s popularity is undeniable.
According to TechMonitor, AO3 currently hosts over 11 million works of fan fiction.
In 2021, AO3 released a report on its viewership statistics over the previous year, revealing that the site’s daily page views hit a record high of 61.1 million on December 27, 2020.
George is a longtime reader of fan fiction on AO3 and tells TODAY.com that he spends a few hours a day browsing the site in his spare time. His interest in fanfiction started with “Naruto”, a popular Japanese manga series, and he later started creating fandom content on TikTok.
Despite being a fan himself, George didn’t initially realize just how passionate the fiction fan community is.
“I made my first fanfiction video about a year and a half ago, and it went really viral,” he says. “And I remember being so shocked. I didn’t know there were so many people like that.”
“It’s still kind of shocking to me, because sometimes I think it can feel like a very niche community,” he continues.
Beyond entertainment, fan fiction has a deeper meaning for George. Growing up queer, he didn’t often encounter representations of his identity in popular media.
“I identify as a queer person, and most of the media I consumed just didn’t include me,” he says. “What’s really exciting about fandom and fanfiction is that I read fanfiction for the first time and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s me on the page.’ For someone like I didn’t expect other people around me to share these experiences, and so it made me feel seen.
Fanfiction reader Nacia Goldberg, 25, tells TODAY.com that she spends about 11 hours reading fanfiction every day.
“When I’m waiting to do something, like on the train, or waiting in line at the grocery store, I just like to open it and start scrolling,” she says.
Goldberg has been involved in the fiction fan community since high school.
“I think the appeal of fanfiction is that we kind of form emotional attachments to these characters that we’ve read about before, or seen on TV, or seen in passing. And we just want to continue this emotional journey with them. It’s kind of a low barrier of entry for interest, in that it’s free and easily accessible,” she explains.
She adds that she loves “how easy it is and how it helps me keep reading stories about characters I love.”
Despite his legions of followers, George acknowledges that fanfiction can get a bad rap.
“I think there’s a bit of a stigma around fandom and fan fiction,” he says.
Fan fiction works have been accused of breaking intellectual property laws in the past, and several authors have expressed distaste for the genre.
Fanfiction sites have also faced controversy over graphic or sexual content present in some stories. AO3 asks users to verify their age before viewing certain stories, and writers are encouraged to flag potentially triggering or graphic themes in their stories so those who wish to avoid certain topics can stay away.
Goldberg is in favor of AO3’s content policy.
“Their mission is to have minimal censorship, which of course a lot of people don’t necessarily agree with,” she says. “But I think censorship is a tool that can be pointed both ways.”
For George, the limitless nature of fanfiction reflects the creative freedom of the genre.
“There’s something about it being such an open source — you get the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he says. “There’s also something inherently beautiful about it. There’s just everything there.”
According to him, fanfiction can be radical.
“I think it started as an act of defiance and as an act of wanting inclusivity,” he says. “There is something very inherently human about the desire for representation in writing.”
This article originally appeared on TODAY.com